Is too much freedom unhealthy?

Perhaps it is the recent death of Pope John Paul and his firm, never varying approach to morality that has me thinking. Or perhaps it is that our daughter, failing in a number of classes in school, is now getting the service of a life coach to try to get her life organized in a way so she can actually succeed. But I’m beginning to wonder if too much freedom for an adolescent is a bad thing.

That’s not to suggest that our 15-year-old daughter can do whatever she wants. We have rules and she largely abides by them. It is true that we often get a load of snarkiness in return. But she is definitely not doing drugs, tobacco, alcohol or sex. She is not in trouble with the law. Like me she is wary of pretty much anything that might cause her to lose control of herself. At the moment her only crucial problem is her schoolwork. Bringing home consistent D’s and F’s in subjects she doesn’t care about (currently Algebra, Chemistry and World History) — and largely because she can’t/won’t remember to either do/turn-in her homework — is her problem. It is one that we’ve been trying to solve since at least fourth grade. I won’t get into all the details of how we’ve tried and failed over and over again. (And yes, she’s been tested for ADD.) Let’s just say that busy public school teachers often don’t help in solving the problem. Our daughter is one of many they manage. They don’t usually have time to work with us week to week while we try to track assignments. It’s like trying to pin the tail on a donkey when you are in the other room. Now in high school her teachers are more inclined to laugh at us as we try to hold her accountable for their assignments than anything else. She was supposed to master that phase in Junior High. And yes we acknowledge our share of fault. We’ve tried lots of different strategies with little success but after all we are her parents.

So our daughter often says she has done her homework when in fact she hasn’t and it is often impossible to know for sure. What I do know is that she can find plenty of far more interesting things to do than homework and studying. Principally, like many teens, her social life is now online. Most of her online friends are also people she knows from school. IMing and downloading music seem to be favorite activities.

Things were simpler when I was growing up. I know instinctively that if a tool like the Internet had been available to me I probably would have been lured by it in deference to doing boring things like studying for an upcoming exam. Particularly if I found things on the Internet I really liked my grades would have suffered.

Even back in the 1960s though my parents had some pretty old-fashioned ideas. These are ideas that now in hindsight seem pretty smart. For example, they limited our TV watching to one hour a night if we had school the next day. Oh, how we hollered! But on the other hand with our list of choices tightly constrained it was a lot easier to spend our free time reading books than watching Star Trek.

But there was a downside to all that discipline. We felt very much under their thumbs and chafed at it. Probably most teenagers would do the same regardless of the degree of discipline imposed. But it seemed pretty heavy handed to us at the time because naturally all our friends got to watch all the TV they wanted. We were considered freaks and our parents just didn’t care!

On the other hand, our family really succeeded. I didn’t do a scientific study of where all our friends are today. But I will note in a family with eight children we have three with PhDs and three with Masters degrees.

But we are told that freedom is a virtue. George W. Bush unilaterally invaded a foreign country to liberate people. If freedom is good then by implication choice is good too. And how can people know what they want in life if they don’t have the freedom to try various things and see what fits?

So that is sort of the philosophy that we brought to our own parenting experience. Admittedly I am more inclined toward limiting freedom with my daughter than is my wife. Her experience growing up was a lot different. Her mother was a hands off mother. My wife was naturally intelligent. She never worked very hard at her studies but she consistently brought home A’s. So over time we groped toward a spot in the middle of our philosophies. It became something like this: if our daughter’s homework was done then she was free to spend as much time as she wanted pursuing her interests, providing they were neither dangerous nor illegal.

I would like to think that our mixed experience was one of a kind. But talking with fellow parents who are using similar tactics I find that their experiences are quite similar. Of course there are some children who naturally embrace learning. But there are also lots of children like my daughter who are intensely interested in those subjects they like, but cannot find the wherewithal to pay attention and excel in those subjects they don’t care about.

In my spare time I teach a course in Web Page Design at a local community college. Maybe it is just community college students, or maybe it is a pervasive trend, but my younger students in general just don’t seem willing to invest the time and energy it takes to succeed in the class either. The odds improve for those who are foreign born. Orientals and Indians in particular seem to have the educational ethic. But about a third of the class will withdraw or switch to audit when they discover the class requires real study. Others will skip lots of classes. Like my daughter they will be scattershot about turning in homework, even though they get credit for turning it in. When it comes time for exams, it is clear that about half the class never bothered to study. Since I always review for exams you would think they would at least take notes during the review. But mostly they sit there without taking notes. Some of them zone me out.

It takes discipline to focus on that which doesn’t particularly interest you. I am afraid we’ve filled up the lives of our children with too many potential distractions. The aggregate seems to be a sort of addiction. From their perspective instant gratification online is a powerful allure. Things can always be put off until tomorrow.

And yet we also live in a frighteningly more complex world. Some of the skills that children learn today, such as multitasking, may be very valuable in the 21st century workforce. But these skills are only as good as their ability to maintain focus on a task. I don’t see a lot of that happening in today’s youth. I think my daughter is a case in point.

Perhaps that’s why I shudder when I imagine my daughter in the real world. To her life is a la carte.

I wonder if I should have sent her to parochial school. Maybe she would have gotten a heaping portion of Catholic guilt like I got. But likely she would be better prepared to survive in the real world than she is now. There is still time to learn these lessons before the real world delivers them unwelcome on her doorstep. Will she, like so many of my students, just get by? Or will she find the right stuff within her at last to compete effectively in the world?

Right now I don’t want to know the answer.

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